Is Antiques the wrong word?

Mark HillAntiques & Collectables Expert ~ Author & Publisher Mark Hill

Antiques. I can’t afford them and I don’t understand them.

Much has been made recently about the difficult state of the antiques market. In an increasingly fast-paced world led by interiors magazines and the pure, hard drive of commerce from high street and retail park retailers, some say antiques have fallen by the wayside. Even more so as these retailers build their offerings of new versions of the objects we love, buy and sell.

For many, the very word ‘antiques’ conjures up images of polishing heavy brown furniture, tweed covered gentlefolk from the shires, and the tick tock of a grandfather clock in an otherwise silent antiques shop ruled by a rather grumpy looking dealer engrossed a newspaper. All once appealing, but now not so to much of the public. Then there’s granny’s china cabinet, bursting at the hinges with trinkets and bibelots. “Look, but don’t touch anything!” she cries as she serves a cup of tea in her precious tea service. “It’s very old you know, it used to belong to my granny, so be careful!” She says with a certain smile.

And then there’s the price. “Surely I can’t afford ‘real antiques’, the stuff of stately homes and grand antiques fairs or Bond street shops? And, if I do go in and try to buy, because I actually quite like them, what if I make a mistake or say something out of turn? Why do people turn a vase over to look at the bottom, or take a drawer out to look at the back, before nodding sagely? I don’t want to look or sound like a fool! Antiques, they’re not for me, surely?”

But as it’s plain to see if you attend any well-run fair, centre or shop, there are plenty of visitors, and plenty of them are keen and willing to buy – especially if the dealer gives them the right encouragement, information and attention. Despite the doom mongers, many people are still buying our lovely old stuff.

Interiors magazines have gone cold turkey on their addiction to 100% pure mid-century modern and the clean lines of minimalism. Instead our addictions to keeping ‘on trend’ are fed with images that clearly show a mix of objects both old and new. The curves of a Rococo sideboard are echoed in the neoclassical urn that sits upon it and in the colour saturated shapes of the Terry Frost painting that hangs above them. They shouldn’t work together, but they do. And all are displayed against a simple, easy-on-the-eye painted wall that encourages you to tuck in to the visual feast presented in front of you.

Others readily mix Art Deco furniture with chintzy Edwardian tea sets, a mid-century modern lamp and wire magazine rack, granny’s favourite comfy armchair and that quirky vase found in a French flea market for a song on holiday last Summer. Whilst wearing something from the 1950s to serve the tea and cupcakes. That vignette comes under the banner of ‘vintage’, which some argue has saved our beloved industry. Mix and match is back stronger than ever, and it’s all about expressing individuality, yourself and your loves and life experiences through the objects in your home.

‘Vintage’ has meant that many of the antiques we love and buy and sell have found a practical second life – most of these buyers actually use the objects they have amassed, as well as displaying them. And these objects really bloom and blossom when there’s a story behind each piece, which their proud owners delight in revealing.

But some in the trade have a problem with the ‘vintage’ movement, even though it’s almost certainly here to stay. It’s true that many pieces are under a certain level of price and quality, and it can be true that there’s often a lack of what used to be grandly titled ‘connoisseurship’. Condition also counts, and here it’s often the shabbier the chic-er. But we should be grateful for and celebrate the facts that buyers choose our objects over new ones, and that new generations are even interested in what we love and have to sell. It’s typically eye-appeal combined with Jackanory over expertise, and the ‘decorative’ angle increasingly seems to be the way the market is going, particularly if you wish to attract new generations of buyers.

But the people who buy these pieces don’t call them ‘antiques’. That word appears to be almost too loaded with unappealing connotations for them. Certain fair organisers keen to attract this vibrant market have realized this and are toying with new titles for their fairs to do so. When I worked with Judith Miller and DK we struggled with the title ‘Decorative Arts’ for a book about the subject as it seemed somehow too elitist and off-putting. I think we’re all in agreement that the dreadful term ‘brown furniture’ needs a marketing makeover to develop the nascent return to popularity of the stuff, but do we need to extend that makeover to the word antiques too? Or is ‘vintage’ it?


6 thoughts on “Is Antiques the wrong word?

  1. Right on the button Mark !!
    How long have we been trying to attract YOUNG people to the wonderful world of antiques ? We will never achieve this holy grail without re-inventing ourselves. After all, the young collectors are the future of antiques & need encouraging to choose from our vast inventory of pre loved wares. Need I use the word green ? we are the ultimate in recycling, and remember, most items anyone can buy in a retail environment today, are built to fall apart in a very short period of time. Vintage pieces ( the young understand that term & are comfortable with that description) is the way forwards.
    Marketyour stock as vintage or retro or any other word the young understand, they are still the same wonderful items, just re-labelled !!

  2. Very insightful piece of writing. You have hit the nail right on the head. We must not shy away from encouraging the young to buy vintage as it has far more soul and character than new.

  3. I think the term antiques confuses people, how old is an antique?
    Better to describe by period, to be accessible and attract a younger market.
    Victorian, Edwardian, Art Deco, Modernist, 20th century, are all terms that evryone can relate to.

  4. Mark, were you just listening in on my conversation with a friend?! Was talking about how I love Art Deco pieces but not in the traditional sense.. Most people hear Art Deco and think of what I can only refer to as old Hollywood glamour. Embracing the whole range of pieces within a period, especially those that are often overlooked is the best way to approach it in my eyes. In any home the quirky mix of eras and styles of pieces is what makes it truly unique, and tells more of a story than shop bought, cookie cutter furniture! I hope to bring more of this eclectic version of antique and vintage to the homes of my friends and age group 🙂

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